Partners in imperialism

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

Britain, which has quietly reconfigured its defence policy to play an ostensibly offensive role, has seriously violated international law in its support for the U.S. intervention in Iraq.

An adapted extract from Mark Curtis' new book,

published by Vintage, London

RECENT months have clearly shown that the British government of Tony Blair sees itself as the junior partner in a new phase of American imperialism.

Blair's Britain is a systematic violator of international law and ethical standards in its foreign policy - an outlaw state of its own. It is a key ally of some of the world's most repressive regimes that is consistently condoning, and sometimes actively aiding, human rights abuses. During a so-called "war against terrorism", Britain is in fact one of the world's leading apologists for, and supporters of, state terrorism by allies responsible for far more serious crimes than Al Qaeda - such as Turkey in its Kurdish regions, Russia in Chechnya, and Israel in the occupied territories.

Under Blair, violating international law has become as British as afternoon tea. Even before the invasion of Iraq, the Blair government had indulged in at least six specific violations of international law: in conducting the wars in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia without United Nations authorisation; in committing violations of international humanitarian law in the bombing of Yugoslavia; in the illegal bombing of Iraq in December 1998; in maintaining the illegal "no fly zones" over Iraq, a permanent "secret" war; and in maintaining sanctions against Iraq, contributing to the death of hundreds of thousands of people. (The latter, while technically applied by the U.N., have in reality been maintained by the United States and Britain; many international lawyers persuasively argue that they are illegal since they violate other U.N. conventions).

In invading Iraq, British leaders could hardly have displayed more open contempt for international law. London's position in 2003 echoes that during the British invasion of Egypt in 1956. Anthony Nutting, Conservative Foreign Office Minister at the time, explained that Britain then refused to commit to a U.N. route to deal with its enemy, nationalist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, since "neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly could give us what we wanted".

Open defiance of the U.N. is a permanent feature of British foreign policy. In the 25 years of the Cold War (1965 - 1990) Britain cast twice as many vetoes in the Security Council as the Soviet Union - 27 compared to 13, mainly to support the racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I can find no mention of this fact anywhere in Britain's mainstream political culture, which continues to promote the myth of Britain's enduring support for the U.N.

The attack on Iraq should be viewed as a next step in the creation of a new U.S.-led imperial order. Initially, British leaders appeared to see the war as following military adventures against Yugoslavia and Afghanistan to rewrite international law to make such interventions even easier in future. Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien said in September 2002, for example, that "if our peers accept that what we are doing is a proper, indeed a moral, response to the situation we face, it will become a building block for the development of international law". In other words, if we invade other countries enough times under a moral pretext, and our peers (that is, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies) accept it, we will rewrite the law. This time, France and others refused to play ball.

The key overall aim is to maintain "the authority of the international order", Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has explained. Robert Cooper, a British diplomat despatched by Blair to become special envoy in Afghanistan, has written that "international order is created by force, preserved by force and backed by the threat of force". He adds that "questions about whether it is legal or not seem - at this stage in world history, at least - merely pedantic".

The outlaw state under Blair is stating that the world will continue to be ruled by force, and that it will be Anglo-American force rather than anyone else's. The aim is consistent with that of post-War British foreign policy whereby upholding "international order" means preserving the privileged position of Anglo-American power and ensuring that key countries and regions remain under their overall control.

Oil is, of course, the specific Anglo-American interest in Iraq - West Asian oil was described by British planners in 1947 as "a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination". "We must at all costs maintain control of this oil," Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd noted in 1956. U.S. planners outlined in secret files at the beginning of the post-War world a "mutual recognition" with Britain that the two countries' oil policy sought "control, at least for the moment, of the great bulk of the free petroleum resources of the world".

The U.S., planners stated in 1947, should "seek the removal or modification of existent barriers to the expansion of American foreign oil operations" and "promote... the entry of additional American firms into all phases of foreign oil operations". Over half a century later the goal is the same.

Moral pretexts are deployed to justify the protection of these interests. Both Bush and Blair have been desperate to fabricate a link between the Saddam regime and Al Qaeda, the new official threat of our age.

The previous major official threat was from the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. While this threat was real in some cases, it was hugely exaggerated, and in some instances deliberately fabricated. It served four main purposes: it provided a pretext for Western military intervention abroad as "defence" against Soviet expansion; it enabled support for repressive governments on the excuse that they were bulwarks against communism; it enabled clampdowns on domestic dissent by referring to infiltration by the enemy; and it enabled huge profits to be made by the military industry, which produced the weapons demanded by a permanent arms race.

But the real threat to U.S. and British leaders in the post-War period came not from communism or the Soviet Union but from nationalist forces within developing countries. The principal "threat" they posed was to Western control over their economic resources - the fear that a country's resources might be primarily used to benefit its people. Nationalist movements and governments were invariably labelled communist and all U.S., and most British, interventions until Panama in 1989 were justified as defending the free world from Soviet expansion.

The message to the Western public now is, as in the Cold War, unless we do what our leaders say, we will all be incinerated: "The gathering storm of terrorism will unleash its fury on us all," Donald Rumsfeld explains. "We now know that thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us," Bush has told Americans. Blair gives Britons a similar message, as the number of threat stories in the media increases. Some are apparent fabrications such as a recent story of an imminent gas attack on the London underground. These stories are intended to frighten the public into giving our leaders a free hand in doing whatever it takes to destroy the ruthless enemy that seeks to kill us.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been no obvious global threat against which the U.S. can be seen to be "defending" itself. U.S. planners did their best to deem a few rogue regimes, a few drug traffickers and, before Al Qaeda, a few terrorists, as new threats. But these were isolated, more easily containable, and lacked a global presence that could be presented as a systematic threat to the West as a whole. But Al Qaeda, like the Russian hordes, can be presented as threatening everything we hold dear, which is precisely its utility. Indeed, the U.S. National Security Strategy conveniently states that "today's security environment" is "more complex and dangerous" than it was during the Cold War.

THIS is the new pretext for global interventionism. The U.S. has already used the "war against terrorism" to secure a major new presence in oil-rich Central Asia. Since September 11 the U.S. has established 13 bases in nine countries ringing Afghanistan and the Gulf. U.S. military advisers and forces have been sent to the Philippines, Nepal, Georgia, Djibouti (for use in Yemen), and Sudan (for action in Somalia).

U.S. advisers have also been sent to Nepal to aid the government defeat an insurgency by Maoist guerillas who declared a "people's war" in 1996. Britain is also providing helicopters, communications equipment and training in setting up a "military intelligence support group" with the Nepalese Army. British aid is in effect covert, bypassing parliamentary scrutiny and using an obscure government "global conflict prevention" fund.

London's support comes during a massive increase in violence by the Army, with widespread torture, "disappearances", the suspension of civil rights, the censorship of newspapers and arrests of hundreds of people without trial. Most killings have been perpetrated by government forces. Nepal government figures show that from 1996 to 2002, 3,290 rebels were killed by government forces while 1,360 police and army personnel and civilians were killed by the rebels. The root of the insurgency is the failure of successive Nepalese governments to alleviate the grinding poverty of the country's rural population and to introduce land reforms, long demanded by the poor. These factors explain the Maoists' popular support in many rural areas.

The British government argues that the Nepal government's struggle should be seen as part of the wider "war against terrorism"; at the same time, London admits there is no evidence linking the Maoists to Al Qaeda or any other external terrorist group. As in the Cold War, no evidence is required to support elite assertions.

U.S. leaders now say that "our best defence is a good offence" and speak of "destroying the threat before it reaches our borders". The U.S. will continue to develop "long-range precision strike capabilities and transformed manoeuvre and expeditionary forces". The U.S. strategy is "to project military power over long distances" with forces "capable of insertion far from traditional ports and air bases". U.S. forces need to be able "to impose the will of the United States and its coalition partners on any adversaries", including by "occupation of foreign territory until U.S. strategic objectives are met". The U.S. "targeted killings" of six "Al Qaeda suspects" in Yemen by an unmanned Central Intelligence Agency plane and a new NATO rapid response force that would operate without the permission of the host nation, are part of the same imperial strategy.

The junior partner's forces have also been quietly reconfigured from an ostensibly defensive role to an overtly offensive one. With no major threats to the homeland, Britain now has a "new focus on expeditionary warfare", an all-party parliamentary Defence Committee comments approvingly. This emphasis on power projection overseas was occurring well before September 11 and was already the major feature of the government's "strategic defence review" (SDR), concluded in 1998. September 11 has made an overt focus on military intervention overseas - a key feature of Blair's outlaw state - easier to justify.

Indeed, Britain is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to acting "pre-emptively". The SDR stated that "in the post-Cold War world, we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us". "Long-range air attack" will continue to be important "as an integral part of war fighting and as a coercive instrument to support political objectives".

This "coercive instrument" is the modern version of imperial "gunboat diplomacy", a polite way of saying that Britain will issue military threats to countries failing to do what we (probably really meaning the U.S.) want. Foreign Office Minister Denis MacShane similarly said in 2002 that "foreign policy and military capability go hand in hand" so that it "reinforces what our Ambassador says". The use of force to back up "what our Ambassador says" is surely a strategy that Saddam Hussein (or Hitler) would well understand. It would be interesting to see the reaction of planners and commentators if, say, Iran were to announce that in future its foreign policy were to be backed up by "military capability".

British aircraft carriers "can also offer a coercive presence which may forestall the need for war fighting", according to the SDR. "All ten attack submarines will . . . be equipped to fire Tomahawk land attack missiles to increase their utility in force projection operations". Tomahawk cruise missiles entered service in 1998, representing "a major step forward in capability, enabling precision attacks to be undertaken at long range against selected targets, with a minimal risk to our own forces", former Defence Minister John Spellar explained.

The SDR goes on to outline the "new generation of military equipment" that will be needed for this enhanced power projection, including attack helicopters, long-range precision munitions, digitised command and control systems, a new generation of aircraft carriers, submarines and escorts, the Euro-fighter multi-role warplane and the development of a successor to the Tornado bomber.

Note that this is all before September 11. By then, Blair's military interventionism had already been quite extraordinary. Post-September 11, a Foreign Office minister refers to "an effective doctrine of early warning and where necessary early intervention". The parliamentary Committee notes that "we must... be free to deploy significant forces overseas rapidly", and calls for "pre-emptive military action". Similar to the U.S. view, almost all areas of the world could be the focus of British intervention. The committee states that:

"The implications of an open-ended war on terrorism - particularly one that will address the problems of collapsing and failed states which create the political space for terror and crime networks to operate - suggest that operations in central Asia, East Africa, perhaps the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere, will become necessary as part of an integrated political and military strategy to address terrorism and the basis on which it flourishes."

In similar vein, Blair's envoy Robert Cooper argues for "a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values" which "aims to bring order and organisation". It should be directed principally at "failed states", countries where governments no longer have the monopoly on the use of force, or where this risk is high. Examples include Chechnya, other areas of the former Soviet Union, all of the world's major drug-producing areas, "upcountry Burma", some parts of South America, and all of Africa. "No area of the world is without its dangerous cases", Cooper states.

There is also a key role for nuclear weapons. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has stated that Britain should be prepared to use nuclear weapons even against non-nuclear states, and if British forces were attacked with chemical or biological weapons. Britain also continues to refuse to adopt a "no first use" pledge on nuclear weapons, Labour quietly dropping this previous manifesto commitment after the 1997 general elections.

The Blair government apparently sees nuclear forces as war fighting weapons, not simply as a deterrent, as the myth has it. The Trident nuclear system has a "sub-strategic" role, meaning it is intended for use on the battlefield as well as to deter all-out nuclear war. Malcolm Rifkind, Defence Secretary in the Margaret Thatcher government of the 1980s, asserted that because the threat of an all-out nuclear assault might not be "credible", it was important to "undertake a more limited nuclear strike" to deliver "an unmistakeable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost".

The Blair government similarly says that "the credibility of deterrence... depends on retaining the option for a limited nuclear strike". Geoff Hoon said in March 2002 that "I am absolutely confident, in the right conditions, we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons". He publicly repeated Britain's willingness to use nuclear weapons three times in one month in early 2002.

The British government even says in the SDR that nuclear weapons are to deter "any threat to our vital interests". Such "vital interests" include not only Britain's survival but its international trade and dependence on "foreign countries for supplies of raw materials, including oil".

Britain keeps one nuclear submarine on patrol at all times, with 48 nuclear warheads. This is called the "minimum necessary" to provide for Britain's "security". It is an argument that anyone - perhaps Saddam Hussein - might use to acquire nuclear weapons, in fact with a better reason, given a greater likelihood of being attacked.

Britain has no intention whatsoever of abolishing its nuclear weapons, even though nuclear weapons states are required to move towards disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While paying lip service to this treaty, Britain is actively defying it. In late 1998, a draft resolution was under discussion at the U.N., called "Towards a nuclear weapons free world: The need for a new agenda". The government said that "we oppose the current draft of this resolution... since it is inconsistent with maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent". Meanwhile, it says it wants Trident to remain in service for 30 years, and that "we intend to... design and produce a successor to Trident should this prove necessary". And it is also developing a new generation of "mini-nukes" in a massive 2 billion project.

We live in dangerous times, and would be wise to see such dangers as emanating from political elites on both sides, not just one, of the Atlantic.

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